- Kamakshi Tandon
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Imagine the disappointment of missing the Olympics by one spot. Then imagine the relief of getting in anyway.
Like all tennis players on the cusp of making the cutoff, Malek Jaziri had been anxiously waiting for days to learn whether he would be going to the Games. After winning his first-round match at Wimbledon, he was told his ranking of No. 73 had been fractionally too low for direct entry . But his heart quickly lifted when he learned the International Tennis Federation (ITF) was giving him one of the eight discretionary wild cards into the draw.
The 28-year-old Tunisian will be the only player from an Arab country in the men's draw, as well as the only one from Africa. He will be an able ambassador for the region -- polite, warm and able to speak thoughtfully in four languages: Arabic, French, English and Spanish.
"Every sportsman wants to play the Olympic games," he told ESPN.com. "It's like a dream. So I'm very happy to represent my country in this kind of tournaments.
"I represent all Arabic countries. I'm alone just me in the top 100."
But it wasn't long ago that Jaziri would have had a hard time imagining participating in the Games by any route. He was in his mid-twenties and still struggling to get his ranking into the 200s. Then suddenly, his country underwent a dramatic, unexpected transformation -- and so did his career. He is currently ranked No. 70.
"I'm the new revolutionist," he jokingly declared.
"The revolution helped me so much. If you see my ranking now -- after the revolution I start to play good," he said. "You feel free, I don't know. You feel there is no dictator.
"You can do whatever you want, say whatever you want.
"Before you cannot say whatever you want on the news. You have to think three times before you said something."
Just over a year and a half ago, Jaziri moved back to the capital city of Tunis after spending time in Barcelona to train and rehab knee and ankle injuries. The timing was fateful. A week later, the Tunisian revolution arrived on his doorstep.
Jaziri was on the tennis court when he heard the sound of helicopters and gunfire. People began screaming and rushing. Needless to say, that day's training session was not completed.
"It was very tough, very tough," he said, recalling the chaos of the early days. "First thing, you cannot travel because airport was closed. Second, you cannot practice, because if you run -- they have guns and everything."
He breaks off with a laugh at the thought of it. Imagine sprinting through streets with armed police and protesters in a tense struggle.
He quickly realized it wasn't practical. "I was practicing, you know, and going out on the street," he said. "My family was calling me, a few days in the beginning of the revolution -- two, three days when it start to be very hard, like killing people and everything.
"My family was afraid for me. So I decide to come back home."
Jaziri returned to his hometown of Bizerte, about an hour north of Tunis, where things were calmer. The revolution, which sparked the region's Arab Spring and took the country from dictatorship to fledgling democracy, had began in December 2010 when a fruit seller in a rural town set himself on fire to protest government corruption. The action set off a wave of demonstrations against the repressive regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, with unrest spreading to the capital as 2011 began.
By mid-January, Ben Ali was gone but the ensuing power struggle meant political tensions remained high for the next few months. Jaziri decided to base himself outside the country for a while to continue training and traveling. Sitting on a flight to leave, he could still hear the helicopters in the distance.
But elections were successfully in October, and a fragile equilibrium has emerged. Jaziri is back home, and despite the disruption, believes the events of 2011 were an overwhelmingly positive development for his country.
"People have to know what is meant by this freedom, how to use this freedom. So it's very important," he said. "The country now, situation is good.
"When you travel, you can see the difference.
"Tourism has now come back very good now in Tunisia. There is stability -- better than before, and becoming better every day. And security, internal security is very good, it's got under control, so it's safe."
He is hoping to be a symbol of positive change when he represents Tunisia at the Olympics.
Making the field was a nice change from a series of near misses Jaziri had recently experienced. He had match points three times against his friend, Marcel Granollers, to reach the third round of the French Open, the Grand Slam he had grown up dreaming of playing. Instead, he lost in five sets. In February, he was told he would get a wild card into the ATP event in Dubai by virtue of being the highest-ranked Arab player. He then found out it was instead going to Marko Djokovic, Novak Djokovic's younger brother. A year ago, Jaziri was on the cusp of making the qualifying draw for Wimbledon but illness ended his hopes.
The Olympic wild card isn't the first time the ITF has given Jaziri a helping hand. He was part of an under-14 touring team of African players who participated in various European junior tournaments through the now approximately $4.5 million development fund that is supported jointly by the ITF and the Grand Slams. The project is "very good, very helpful for African players," said Jaziri. "They don't have a lot of help from sponsors or from the [national] federation."
Another Tunisian, junior French Open girls' champ Ons Jabeur, has also received help from the fund and will join Jaziri at the Games, also as a wild card. Before Jabeur, there was Selima Sfar, who took part in the Beijing Games and for many years was a lone Arab presence on the women's tour.
Outside Morocco, Tunisia has perhaps the strongest professional tennis tradition among Arab countries, despite the absence of big tournaments such as those in Doha, Qatar and Dubai.
For Jaziri, it began when he started playing at the age of 5 at his local club in Bizerte, where one of the courts is now named for him.
"There was a lot of good players at this club," he said. "I have good coaches there at the beginning when I start. They help me with good technique. It's very important when you're young."
He left at 12 to train in Tunis and decided to leave school to pursue tennis as a career at 18. He reached No. 297 in 2006 but then struggled for two years with a knee injury. It took another two years to make up the lost ground, but qualifying for the U.S. Open last year and winning a match in the main draw was a big breakthrough.
Jaziri hopes it will also lead to a small revolution for tennis in Tunisia, with increased sponsorship and a greater number of clubs opening.
"This sport start to be very popular in Tunisia," Jaziri said. "We have one tournament [a challenger], in a few years will be a lot of tournaments, I hope, and more players."
In sponsorship terms, his rise has already started to pay off. He shows off the new sponsor patches on his sleeves, pointing to one with particular satisfaction: It's from the ministry of tourism in Tunisia, for whom he is now an official ambassador.
"It's a very beautiful country, sunshine," he said, enthusiastically.
It sounds like they've picked the right spokesperson. "We have everything in Tunisia. I mean, we have desert; we have mountains; we have sea," he continued. "The weather is very good. In summer, people come to party.
"I hope people come to Tunisia because it's [a] very interesting country, very close to Europe, lot of things to do there."
That includes tennis, something he'll be able to show the world when the Games begin later this week.
Tunisian Malek Jaziri couldn't travel or practice, not when he was surrounded by guns and hostile protests. But here he is, with a chance to represent his newly democratic nation at the Olympics.